The peculiar case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who won, relinquished and now once again seeks refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, presents a classic test for President Obama and for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The test is whether the United States should put its founding principles of defending democracy and human rights ahead of international economic and political considerations — considerations that, in this case, involve the most populous and increasingly powerful nation on Earth.
Publicly, the United States has encouraged people everywhere, from the Middle East to Asia to Africa, who live under the thumb of authoritarianism to seek freedom.
Privately, Washington doesn't always follow through on those exhortations.
"The plight of Chen Guangcheng illustrates the growing decline in American moral authority in foreign policy," said Institute for Policy resident scholar Merrill Matthews, a founder of Project Liberty, a new group of conservatives attempting to make their voices heard over what they regard as the din of political partisanship.
"When the U.S. protests the handling of certain dissidents, does anyone care?" Mr. Matthews said. "Such incidents could be seen as an opportunity to make it clear where the U.S. stands with respect to human rights, and why."
Instead, he argues, dissidents increasingly are seen as a problem that plays badly in the press and hurts a president's re-election chances.
Seeing this latest diplomatic crisis through a partisan prism is irresistible for some.
"Had President Obama's excessive government spending policies not forced us to borrow so much from China, the administration might have a little more courage to speak out," Mr. Matthews said.
While the Chen case puts the White House in a tough spot, it affords Mr. Romney an opportunity to highlight his positions on human rights.
On Thursday, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said the Obama administration had "failed" to protect Mr. Chen.
Mr. Romney and other critics of the White House say the administration needs to better safeguard America's image as a beacon of freedom regardless of the consequences.
"It's incumbent upon the United States to speak for Chen and his wife and family and for those who helped him escape," said Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation scholar and former adviser to the legendary Rep. Walter H. Judd, Minnesota Republican and a determined opponent in the 1950s of rapprochement with communist China.
Mr. Edwards said it is the responsibility of any U.S. administration to protect America's image abroad and nudge authoritarian systems such as China's toward democracy.
"President Reagan in the 1980s helped Taiwan to transition from a one-party dictatorship to a democracy," Mr. Edwards said.
"Our secretary of state has given up this guy without an enforceable deal, which is just frankly amateurish and Romney shouldn't hesitate to say so," said Jeremy Carl, Hoover Institution scholar and Project Liberty founder.
Some blamed the mountain of U.S. debt for the administration's squishiness on the Chen case.
Beijing has financed huge chunks of Washington spending in recent years with its purchases of U.S. Treasury notes and other instruments, and a prudent rule of behavior — with nations and with people — is to avoid getting into a fight with one's banker.
America's banker in this case, the government of China, has gone so far as to demand that the United States apologize for harboring Mr. Chen in the first place and permitting the U.S. press to present his side of things.
"We needs to reset the State Department's mindset since Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton's mindset is that America can't talk tough with our Chinese banker," said Republican National Committee member Solomon Yue, himself a refugee from communist rule in China and a member of Project Liberty.
"Her view is incomplete because America also is the second-largest customer for China's exports. So America is the 'king' under the old maxim of economics. Now we can deal with China through strength."
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